The Problem With Podcasting is NOT Discovery

If you were to survey most folks in the podcast space, they’d tell you that the primary problem they face is surfacing their content: Discovery.

That, of course, is the natural perception you’d expect to find among people with too-small audiences who can’t reconcile the size of their audience with the scale of the always-on, worldwide distribution provided by the Internet. My show is available everywhere and all-the-time! So what’s the problem?

Well, let’s assume the problem is not with the “quality” of your show for the sake of argument.

After all, plenty of great content is released all the time, and most of it vanishes into a black hole devoid of that most important of all audience metrics: Attention.

Meanwhile, a ton of not-so-great content is on the tip of our tongues, in our ears, and splashed across our eyes. Why do you think there are (seemingly) a dozen different incarnations of The Real Housewives of [Insert Upscale Enclave Here] on Bravo? Not because they suck in the ratings, that’s for sure.

No, “quality” is in the eye and the ear of the beholder.

So back to discovery.

Discovery is not a problem because most consumers don’t want to discover anything. Discovery is work, it’s a chore. Digging for treasure is only fun when you know there’s actual treasure under your shovel.

Think about how you feel when you walk into a supermarket looking for some potato chips, only to discover that there is a mile-long aisle stocked with hundreds of varieties. Hey, no discovery problem here! There’s plenty to discover! But who wants to take all the time and effort. It’s just potato chips! Likewise, it’s just a podcast! My time is much more precious.

Indeed, that supermarket problem is called “choice paralysis.” And one of the most common results of being presented with too many options is that the consumer elects to choose “none of the above.”

Most consumers don’t want to discover anything. That’s why most movies are sequels or prequels or “from the producers of” a movie you’ve seen before.

It’s why the top-selling books are perennial-sellers. It’s why the most popular songs drive the sales and radio charts. It’s why ratings go down when you play more unfamiliar (i.e. “discovery-worthy”) music. We like the idea, but not the execution.

So why are we even talking about discovery? Because the conversation is being driven by people with too-small podcasts rather than consumers with too-big problems.

So if discovery is not the problem, then what is?

Distribution is the problem.

Podcasters: Distribution, not Discovery, is the Problem Click To TweetThe difference between success and failure is not a great show versus a lousy one. It’s a well-distributed one versus one that isn’t.

By “distribution,” I don’t mean the fact that your show is available on all platforms at all times and studiously listed in the iTunes store. That’s just the potential for distribution. Just as saying “MTV is available in 100 million homes” doesn’t mean 100 million homes watch MTV.

No, “distribution” means putting content in the way of attention. That means tapping into where attention already exists.

This is why the show that follows the Superbowl is always the hottest new show of the season. The lead-in provided priceless (literally) attention and distributed audience in record numbers to the new show.

This is why the bookstore bestsellers are familiar names and familiar faces. Joel Osteen has eight bestsellers to his credit. He also has a nationwide TV show, a thriving digital platform, and a weekly in-person attendance of more than 50,000 Churchgoers. Every new book taps into the attention where it already exists.

This is why the hot new show on HBO is largely “hot” because it’s on the network that you trust for Game of Thrones. Distribution of audience in the presence of a trusted brand relationship. Indeed, the “hottest” new show is the one that gets GoT’s time slot. That’s the day and time you expect HBO’s best, after all.

This is why the most popular podcasts excerpt and promote other podcasts on their shows. The old show is literally roadblocking the attention of the audience for the new show. I have had a listener tell me personally that it was my promotion of another show on my podcast that introduced her to that other show. No ads. No fancy new discovery platforms. No time wasted touring the iTunes store for sudden inspiration. She trusted me. I sampled the content of the new show. Boom: Trial.

This is why success begets success: The platforms with the biggest shows are able to launch more of the biggest shows. They have the larger audiences – the broader pools of attention – and can put new content in the way of that attention.

That’s how the makers of This American Life established a little show called Serial. They used their own air – their own pool of attention – to do it.

So let’s stop talking about discovery as some intractable problem facing consumers: It’s not. And woe unto new podcasting platforms who build their USP as a solution to the discovery problem. You, my friends, are likely doomed.

Let’s also not suggest that a new show has to be great to be popular or a popular show has to be great to be deserving. Neither is true. Of course, it has to be great to somebody, but that somebody is not necessarily you.

What a show needs is distribution to folks who are already interested in what the brand provides. The show needs to be in the way of attention.

Attention is the “lead in” for any show, and if you start without it, there’s little likelihood that you’ll ever get it.

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  • So true. I think much of what you share in this article not only applies to podcasting, but content distribution of any kind where the content creators are looking for audience.
    I shared this with a self-publishing/indie author group I admin and told them to swap out podcast with books and it virtually applies the same way.


  • Stevie, you are EXACTLY right.

    If you want the mass audience you have to go where they already are and be in their way, regardless of what category we’re talking about.

  • Gil Edwards

    Great post Mark. This is like a secret weapon if you can mobilize this right. This kind of distribution tactic was also at the core of our growth strategy with Redlasso (oh… ugh, we were just early). StevieB, and his comments are so right… for just about any content creator in our mobile and digital age. I would say though, that Radio (as one example) has a big advantage here that rarely gets capitalized, both with the ability to create separate verticals of digital content that utilizes their own in-house resources, and the ability to use their broadcast power and market influence (key) to drive distribution, and not in the traditional sense… I don’t mean airing it. For example… perhaps a major market news station could create a completely independent local news interview or commentary podcast, then do a content exchange / partnership with your local newspaper portal to cross capitalize on each others audiences. Then don’t stop there, keep going. Find other ways to continue to share that content… and there are more options. You can’t expect everyone to come to you, even with that big ‘ol local radio station. Your audience might be local first, but it can be global… think globally. Music stations have incredible access to artists. Sure, make that heavily station branded studio interview video you always do, post it to your Facebook page… whatever… that serves an important purpose, but don’t loose sight of the fact that you have the ability to create entirely new content brands too. Create a unique YouTube channel for produced interviews, build a new brand that matters to the YouTube audience… edit and produce the content as YouTubers do (its unique) and while you’re there… maybe you’ll find some interesting talent options / ideas too. Great post, love it. I could go on…

    (This is not to discount the importance of creating branded content centric to your station brand… I am just challenging the norm, to use this tactic you describe so perfectly here, to go beyond the brand… go beyond your walls… because you can.)

  • Thanks for the thoughtful response, Gil!!

    Hate to say it, but distribution is more important than content.

  • NorthsideLou

    To me, when people say “discovery problem” it means discovery is too hard, not that they long for the experience of going out to dig and dig to discover something new. Aren’t you just describing the discovery problem, but instead calling it a distribution problem? You could just as well have call it a marketing problem, or a shelf-space problem, or a promotion problem. Does independent music have a distribution problem or a discovery problem? Do independent films and documentaries have a discovery problem or a distribution problem?

  • Distribution: the action of sharing something out among a number of recipients.
    Discovery: the action or process of discovering or being discovered.

    It’s quite clear to me that the burden is on the brand and distributor in the first case and on the consumer in the second case.

  • Completely agree Steve!

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